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  ISSUE No. 64
Interview of Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Managing Director, Cephyr

Can you tell us about your research in the area of medicinal and aromatic plants?

I have been working in this field for over 20 years now. With a strong background in organic chemistry, I wanted to pursue research in this area when I returned to Mauritius from the UK where I studied.  Working on plants was my way of reconciling organic chemistry and the chemistry of plants and natural products, especially medicinal plants. Medicinal plants and traditional knowledge constitute the very basis of modern medicine. Over 60% of the drugs sold in the chemist’s shop have a molecule from nature. Out of this percentage, 25% come directly from medicinal plants. This sector alone accounts for over USD 60 billion. However, Africa does not really benefit from this phenomenal production. To date the continent has only contributed 83 of the 1,100 blockbuster drugs that have emerged from this sector.

One of the explanations for this fact is the oral transmission of traditional knowledge. African countries, by their history, have not taken this sector seriously – unlike countries like China and India that have actively documented and codified such information.  My priority when I started in this area has been precisely to document the traditional information and to create a full database on existing plants and their utilisation. The loss of information along with the disappearance of some plant species is making the task of scientists very difficult as it is a race against the clock.

How is Mauritius the ideal place for this type of research? How will it benefit Mauritius and the African continent?

Mauritius belongs to what is called a “biodiversity hot spot”, that is a region blessed with unique plants in the world. These plants have never been studied before. We also have a rich pharmacopoeia so the sources of new leads are potentially very interesting and promising.

It is a fact that many people on the continent and in Mauritius use herbal remedies. The World Health Organisation stated that some 80% of the world’s population depends on medicinal plants for their primary health care. People feel comfortable since treatment is reconciled with culture. Now if we manage to validate these traditional recipes by determining the doses and assess their potential side effects, we have a powerful tool to ensure that people have access to safe but less expensive medicines. Also, one must not forget that plants provide ingredients for nutrition as well as the cosmetics sector. With the world going ‘green’ in terms of demand, there is a huge market to be tapped for our countries.

Leveraging science, technology and innovation in this sector will also help the younger generation as we will be creating jobs and developing entirely new lines of business.

Does Mauritius have the right structure to conduct these types of research? Infrastructure, legal framework, regulations etc...

Do we have the infrastructure? I am a firm believer in creating our own infrastructure… This is what I did when I decided to move away from my comfort zone of academia in order to help create the Centre for Phytotherapy Research which proposes to address just that, namely add value to plant resources to generate new leads for the cosmetics, pharma and nutraceutical sectors.

By being part of a holding of companies that does clinical trials, we also have the capacity to bring in business, mainly from overseas, to validate herbal products which are coming out of the research conducted at university level and in other companies worldwide.

In Mauritius we have the legal framework to do clinical trials but, more importantly at the international level, we have ratified the Nagoya protocol of the CBD and this will regulate access and benefit sharing – a major step in the exploration of the rich biodiversity of the south. We are awaiting the passing of the Pre Clinical Trials Bill that will no doubt give another boost to R & D. We are all aware that R & D are the levers for wealth creation – so let’s do it!!

What will be the outcome of these initiatives and what interest do they represent for Mauritius and Africa?

Developed and emerging countries have focused on Research and Development as levers for wealth creation. Translating academic research into development is one way of doing that. The world is benefiting from Google, Face Book, Apple computers etc… They are all products emanating from academic research. Interestingly the Zuckerbergs and Jobs have all been university dropouts! These academics/young entrepreneurs have benefited from the appropriate enabling environment to help them file and patent their products and the rest is history.

We need this enabling environment in our region. We need, inter alia, to have access to venture capital and a strong legal framework to be able to do all of the above. R & D create jobs and this is how we will be able to sponge off unemployment and create a vibrant environment for our youth and encourage brain retention!

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